Can an A.I. be Jewish?
Hillel Jewish University Center engages students by introducing educational opportunities
What would Judaism look like on another planet? How do kosher laws apply to synthetic meat? How do quantum technologies impact halachah? What does that even mean?
A cohort of Jewish Carnegie Mellon University students will be wrestling with some of these concepts, and others, as part of a new working group on Jewish futurism created as part of Hillel Jewish University Center’s efforts to tailor ways to connect to a diverse range of student populations, eschewing a one size fits all approach.
“We are constantly reviewing and analyzing how we can find innovative and engaging ways that sing to the identities of the different Jewish student populations,” said Dan Marcus, CEO and executive director of Hillel JUC.
Together with a group of CMU students, Danielle Kranjec, Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator, crafted the futurism program “to really marry together the students’ academic and Jewish identities in a way that’s really relevant and interesting and fun,” Marcus said.
Kranjec appreciates the freedom she has, she said, to create curricula that meets the needs and interests of the different students with whom she works.
“One of the ongoing informal conversations that kept coming up with the students at CMU were all of these ideas around technology and the future and how their professional work and coursework intersected with Judaism, writ large, thinking far into the future,” she said. “We developed a series of questions around what we would call futurism, but vis a vis Judaism itself.”
The group will meet six times throughout the semester and will draw on science fiction, halachic literature and scientific texts and articles as its source material. Kranjec intends to let the students lead the way on these topics.
“I’m not an expert on artificial intelligence, but some of them are becoming experts in artificial intelligence,” she said. “If we want to ask, ‘can an A.I. [artificial intelligence] be Jewish,’ they are going to have as much to weigh in as I do.”
The lines of inquiry of the Jewish futurism group, Kranjec said, have much in common with the issues facing Jews today, as well as those faced by Jews in the past.
“The interesting thing is, when you get to the base of it, we are really asking the same questions that everyone asks: What is Judaism? What is essentially Jewish? Because I think that is what many of us are asking in our daily lives as we make our decisions of how we do what we do, and what we take from our tradition, and what we don’t carry forward. But this is putting those questions into a mode that resonates with a particular kind of student, and a particular kind of Jew.”
Alan Menaged, a CMU junior majoring in math, who is “pretty scientifically oriented,” is looking forward to the research aspect of the new group.
“I have particular curiosity about what Jewish life is going to be like in the next 50 years,” said the New Jersey native, who was raised in an Orthodox family and has maintained his Jewish observance while in college. “There’s so much to talk about [concerning] the future of the Jewish people.”
While contemporary Jews, when talking about the future, generally discuss such issues as declining institutional affiliation, there are other factors that most definitely will come into play as science continues to advance, and Jews will need to decide how to respond based on their tradition, he said.
As an example, Menaged offered a robot that has been programmed to have emotions.
“How do we treat that robot?” he asked. “Do we treat it like an animal? Do we treat it like a person? Or do we treat it like anything else created in a lab?”
Hillel JUC has created educational opportunities for other cohorts of students as well. Those seeking to learn the basis of Jewish values and then apply those values to social justice work can apply for a Tzedek Fellowship. No prior Jewish learning or experience is required.
Tzedek Fellows will spend five, one-hour sessions discussing the central themes of the Jewish tradition relating to justice and then will be required to spend at least 10 hours engaged in volunteer service hours.
The program is perfect for Jori Newman, a junior pre-med Pitt student, majoring in English. While both Newman’s parents are Jewish, she had little Jewish background before she came to Hillel JUC. She is now Hillel’s Shabbat chair, in charge of Shabbat dinners.
“My parents didn’t really expose me to Judaism,” Newman said, adding that she never attended Jewish camp, did not attend a synagogue and rarely celebrated the Jewish holidays.
At the end of her first week at Pitt, a friend asked her if she wanted to go to Hillel for Shabbat. She had never heard the word “Shabbat,” she said, and had to Google it.
Now she is immersed in the Hillel JUC community and looking forward to learning about the sources of Jewish values from traditional texts, hoping those values will inform her career as a physician.
“I never expected to be involved in any Jewish life on campus,” said Newman, who is from Stroudsburg, Pa. “Growing up, there were three Jewish students in my class, and one was me and one was my twin brother. But I got here, and I fell in love with the Jewish community in and outside of Hillel. Shabbat spoke to me, so I got involved.”
The Tzedek Fellowship will appeal to many Pitt students, who are “very pragmatic,” Kranjec explained.
“They are very professionally and career-driven. So, everything they do in their studies or in their time, they want to be building toward their career or their professional lives.”
The Tzedek Fellowship will allow students going into the helping professions, “to have an opportunity to talk about Jewish values in a concrete way and then put them into action,” she said.
Hillel JUC also has responded to the intellectual needs of students who come to college with a solid Jewish educational background and are looking for more advanced learning opportunities.
This will be the third year of the Weitman Fellowship, “a space for students to really challenge and support a continued and more sophisticated form of Jewish learning,” said Marcus. “It’s learning and action. The students that participate not only have a series of high level learning opportunities, they also have to put into action a project or an event or a program they have been discussing and learning about.”
Only students “who have done Jewish learning in the past and who have been to Israel,” are admitted into the six-session Weitman Fellowship, Kranjec said.
“We actually still get a diverse group of students,” she continued, adding that it’s moving to see Orthodox students, Reform students and students who developed their Jewish identities once they came to Hillel, learning together and discussing Jewish issues. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.